One Urban Genius

MacArthur Genius grant recipients were just announced. Save an urban farmer from Milwaukee, those working to improve cities directly were absent from the list, again.

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The MacArthur Foundation just awarded one of its annual “Genius Grants” to an “urban farmer” from Milwaukee. His name is Will Allen. He’s a former professional basketball player, former corporate consultant and currently the CEO of “Growing Power,” a Wisconsin-based non-profit that runs farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, and rural Merton, Wisc. The group also teaches urban farming techniques to city residents and enlists them to help distribute the food grown on the organization’s land.

Now Allen is $500,000 richer, and urban farming is one certified genius more legitimate.

It’s an interesting move by the foundation. The MacArthur grants are notably not that cognizant of urban issues, or at least not in the way urban issues are represented in this magazine. A run-through of the awarded fellows from the past few years is remarkably thin in the areas of built environments and those working to improve the life of large groups of people directly. There are saxophonists, doctors, memoirists, environmental scientists working in the middle of oceans, but very few architects, no planners, no civic leaders with a capital C.

I don’t think the anonymous MacArthur award committee would consider themselves to be ignoring cities, but their cities look different than the ones we see. Theirs strike me as the kinds of cities that you see on late-night PBS specials; “vibrant” places filled with jazz (sometimes salsa) music and populated with community muralists and Twyla Tharpe’s lighting designer and New Yorker classical music critics and grey-haired women in pashminas taking children from Harlem to see a ballet. Fittingly, the choice of Allen seemed to smack of the precedent of NPR and Times Weekend Magazine pieces on the topics of urban farming and “locavores.”

Individual souls are enriched by MacArthur geniuses, individual bodies healed, bodies of knowledge are augmented, but places are rarely touched.

In reading what the foundation has to say about its award to Allen this point of view is made even clearer. In their eyes, Allen is an advocate for public health and nutrition. Left unmentioned are the dramatic repurposing of land, the establishment of new relationships with the environment, all the cultural issues associated with turning city dwellers into farmers. The specifically urban aspect of Allen’s urban farming seems to be framed as synonymous with the charity of his achievement: he is a farmer who gives the bounty of his harvest to undernourished bodies of the city. He is like the inverse of his fellow awardee, rural doctor Regina Benjamin who gives the wisdom and sophistication of urban science to the folks in the country.

Certainly innovative architects, planners, designers, and community leaders are getting their due other places. Now more then ever, it seems; making cities better is hot. But perhaps that’s exactly why the list of 2008’s geniuses seemed so uninspiring. Allen’s award is a step in the right direction, but, as Next American City tries to remind, the 21st century is filled with geniuses that not only touch lives but transform them through the reformation of places. Let’s hope to see more of those on next year’s list.

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Tags: urban farmingmilwaukee

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